Life Positive: A Heartfelt Saga of Personal Transformation
Open Heart is a doctor’s account of going from almost dead after a triple bypass surgery at age 61 to feats of herculean strength—the kind that would be daunting even for those far younger than him.
[Left] Open Heart, a gripping page-turner, offers a massive dose of inspiration to those who may feel their life has come to naught on account of crippling illnesses.
[Right] Marathoner, mountaineer, triathlete, century bike rider, scuba diver, bungee jumper—these are some of the tags that Dr. Akil Taher can now lay claim to. Not bad for someone in his sixties who had undergone a triple-bypass surgery just a few years back.
Like many article pitches that routinely come my way, Dr. Akil Taher’s introduction of his book, along with a softcopy of the manuscript, had languished in my perennially backlogged email inbox for weeks. We, at Khabar, had published a Spotlight article on Taher in 2015 (“Who Says Life is Over after a Triple Bypass?”) about his dramatic transformation from the depths of ill-health to peaks of rigorous physical accomplishments. So, as I approached his book now, I was interested in his journey. And yet the thought was not lost upon me—the critical editor that I am—that perhaps this could be a vanity project of a well-to-do doctor high on his personal transformation. While immensely commendable, it is one thing to have had the kind of hardly believable “second life” that Taher managed to carve out for himself, and quite another to be able to write a book about it with one’s heart in the right place.
When I finally got around to processing his submission, my intention was to give it a quick scan to decide if we would select it for publishing, and if so, which of our contributors I would assign it to. However, the “quick scan” soon turned into an engrossing infusion into Taher’s book. Once started, I couldn’t stop. Taher’s candidness, vulnerability, and humility, along with the lucid and heartfelt flow of the book had me hooked. It helped that the book’s premise—that a broken life can be resurrected from depths of despair to miraculous triumph—is convincingly conveyed early on by Taher. Some books spring from deep within one’s heart and soul; and it’s not hard to sense that this is one of them. The doctor’s words, because he has shown courage to lay himself bare, seem consecrated and have a potency that reveal a genuine passion to inspire others.
Atop Mount Kilimanjaro, 2012.
Open Heart is a laudable book that simultaneously falls into many genres: motivational, health, fitness, holistic healing (mind-body-spirit, diet, lifestyle) and even a bit of nature and environment. All these themes come together in an effective and cohesive whole as Taher first wins you over with well-chosen narratives of his many experiences of uncommon adventures, and then lays out a “how to” manual of diet and lifestyle changes backed soundly by scientific citations as well as his own compelling results.
“Doctor, heal thyself!” is, I am sure, many of us—as consumers of today’s scientifically advanced yet tunnel visioned healthcare—would like to say to the medical establishment. Many informed and awakened patients suffering from lifestyle induced chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart ailments, blood pressure, auto-immune diseases, and more, are increasingly incredulous of the medical establishment’s singular focus on treating symptoms while obstinately abstaining from modalities of actual cure and healing. Taher’s book is effective because here is a doctor who has indeed healed himself in more ways than one, and is not afraid to call out his own profession on its blind spots. When a seasoned medical doctor with many years of practice behind him acknowledges that while prescription drugs, surgery, and the many wonders of modern healthcare can be crucial in many acute situations; they are not the ultimate panacea for reversing lifestyle-induced diseases, people are bound to listen.
Taher’s story is compelling as it starts from the depths of despair. Besides a severely damaged heart that required an open-heart surgery, the doctor’s body was riddled with breakdowns all around. He writes, “Sinus infections and bronchitis made regular visits. Chronic constipation troubled me. Fissures and hemorrhoids added to my discomfort; and be-cause I had severe diverticulitis, I was hospitalized twice with colon perforation. Not to forget the medication they gave me led to mouth ulcers for many years. I was now plagued with insurmountable health problems. I was giving up on life. I believed I wasn’t going to survive the ordeal of my body’s many weaknesses and that I was going to die.”
[Left] Bungee jumping at Kawarau Gorge bridge in Queenstown, New Zealand.
From such depths, how he slowly, painstakingly, over the following years, came to become the embodiment of physical and mental resilience and conquest—the kind that would outshine many far younger than him—is well chronicled in the book. How someone who at one point would get fatigued from the simple act of putting on clothes to go to work could bring about the miraculous transformation that allowed him to not only run marathons and triathlons, but also take on treacherous adventures such as completing the formidable pilgrimage to Mount Kailash, trekking for hours at end in an atmosphere of scant oxygen at over 19,000 feet, and then the similarly challenging 8-day trek to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro where many, far younger than him, have died of altitude sickness, is one of the most inspiring stories of hope that I have read.
Of the many things I enjoyed about the book was Taher’s secular embrace of spirituality. Despite not being of the faith, his genuine devotional attitude during his trek to Mount Kailash would rival many ardent Hindus. Referring to a climactic moment from this “pilgrimage”—after having spent 72 hours in the same clothes, no showers, and in extreme cold—Taher writes, “I sat on a rock away from the crowd, and felt for the first time, what life would be like if you were devoid of material comforts and luxuries and yet had this immense inner peace that can only be felt, seldom described.” Mount Kailash, says the doctor, “…reinforced my belief that with conviction, humility, faith, and fearlessness, we can make it through the trying but joyous terrain that is life.”
A journey of transformational triumph rarely comes without both the mammoth hurdles as also the pesky, and often seemingly pathetic, sundry problems that humble us. Taher does not hold back from laying it all bare, making it a relatable and humanized journey. Speaking about his time at night at camp while taking on the formidable Mount Kilimanjaro, Taher writes, “With my enlarged prostate, all the fluids I’d drunk, and the water pills I’d taken, I kept getting a strong urge to pee every two to three hours. It was frigid outside, so I fumbled around in the pitch dark, trying to find my headlamp so I could find my pee bottle. I then rolled onto my side, still in my sleep-ing bag, made the necessary adjustments, and waited anxiously for the flow. Nothing happened. Frustrated, I got onto my knees. My friend asked what I was doing. I meekly answered, ‘Praying for a miracle.’”
Taher writes of the many miracles of mind-over-matter in his journey of reformation: how he overcame debilitating pain and injuries to continue to push himself to previously unimaginable goal posts. We see an earnest man in his sixties with a not- too-distant history of a rapidly deteriorating body not just push against his comfort zone courageously, but blow it out of the park. As someone who didn’t think bicycling was his cup of tea, he learnt to ride speed bikes, falling several times trying to get used to his feet locked to the paddles. After weeks of arduous training on the speed bike, Taher took on the century bike run in Mobile, Alabama—a 100-mile course full of uphill and downhill sect-ions that tested every bit of the muscles of this aging former heart patient. The hills and the gushing winds saw many of Taher’s fellow participants give up midway; but he persisted till the end!
Taher’s newfound love for age-defying adventures saw him take on scuba diving, white water rafting, hang gliding, skydiving, bungee jumping, and more. The self-proclaimed couch potato that he once was, is now an ardent lover of nature and the great outdoors. Through these narratives that unfold like a novel, Taher deftly underscores the themes of his book: resilience, adventure, endurance, hope, physical-mental-spiritual wellbeing, connection with nature, and more.
[Left] Taher managed to turn his life upside-down in the best possible way. The self-proclaimed former couch potato doing shirshasana.
After making a thorough impact on your psyche with his feats of conquest, Taher offers sound pragmatic insights on the indispensable value of diet on health. In particular, he highlights, with credible citations, how a whole-food, plant-based diet is the foundation of not only disease reversal but also continued peak health.
It’s a testament to Taher’s purity of purpose and power of his book that despite being a first-time author, without any prior recognition or acclaim, he was able to inspire testimonials from legends in the field of health and healing. Dr. T. Colin Camp-bell, Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry, Cornell University, and co-author of the famous The China Study: Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-term Health writes, “Open Heart is an inspirational quick read with a message that will be remembered.” Dr. Neal D. Barnard, another leading trailblazer in lifestyle medicine describes Taher’s book as “remarkable,” saying it “…shares everything you need to conquer your own challenges.”
Parthiv N. Parekh is the editor-in-chief of Khabar magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com
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